Editorial: COVID reminded us that many CT residents struggle to put food on the table. That hasn't changed.

This artwork by Donna Grethen refers to hunger and families during this holiday season.

This artwork by Donna Grethen refers to hunger and families during this holiday season.

Donna Grethen

COVID-19 reminded — even taught — a lot of Americans about the meaning of hunger.

Memories of those early days of the pandemic should not be shelved into history. In a matter of weeks, paychecks stopped coming in and grocery stores were cleared. In that time of isolation, even those with secure employment could not miss the reality that friends, neighbors, relatives and strangers were suddenly among those facing food insecurity.

It was the most extreme example in our lifetimes of what the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program tries to address for families and individuals who perennially struggle to put food on the table.

SNAP, aka food stamps, has at times carved yet another fissure between political parties. That never should have been the case, and the pandemic should be Exhibit A in why such services are vital.

Contextualizing recent SNAP data in Connecticut is complicated by the rise of COVID and the enhanced services it inspired. The number of SNAP recipients in Fairfield, Hartford and Tolland counties is higher now than in 2019, before the arrival of the coronavirus.

In some ways, the data tells the story of Connecticut. Litchfield, New Haven and Middlesex counties had minor decreases in SNAP usages in the last three years, while the drop on New London and Windham counties was more than 5 percent.

Regardless of where you live, the reality that more than 10 percent of Connecticut residents use food stamps should be jarring. That’s considerably better than states with the most SNAP users (New Mexico tops the list with almost 30 percent), but it’s still a reminder of how many people live paycheck to paycheck.

The numbers will never be a perfect measuring stick of hunger. Many municipalities and school districts responded to the pandemic with other programs to assist families. There were also countless — almost invisible — grassroots efforts that will never get the attention they deserved.

We can’t ignore the likelihood that even as COVID has loosened its stranglehold on daily life, many families in Connecticut face a precarious winter. Inflation means those food stamps may not cover as much of the supermarket bill as they used to (SNAP benefits recently increased by 12.5 percent, but won’t be modified further for at last another year). And fuel and heating costs are expected to dig deep.

The COVID-19 public health emergency faced a key deadline last Friday, when the Department of Health and Human Services let the date pass without offering 60 days’ notice that it will expire. That means it will remain in effect until at least Jan. 11, 2023.

It will likely need more extensions. It’s exactly the kind of issue those newly elected members of Congress need to prioritize.

History is long, but memories are short. Food stamps mean little to people who have never had to use them and everything to those who face hunger. The Thanksgiving holiday arrives as the perfect pause to not only contribute to the likes of food pantries, but to consider how we define hunger in 2022.